Meaning is Easy to Find, Hard to Justify
One of the strangest questions I get when giving talks on Age of Em is a variation on this:
How can ems find enough meaning in their lives to get up and go to work everyday, instead of committing suicide?
As the vast majority of people in most every society do not commit suicide, and manage to get up for work on most workdays, why would anyone expect this to be a huge problem in a random new society?
Even stranger is that I mostly get this question from smart sincere college students who are doing well at school. And I also hear that such students often complain that they do not know how to motivate themselves to do many things that they “want” to do. I interpret this all as resulting from overly far thinking on meaning. Let me explain.
If we compare happiness to meaning, then happiness tends to be an evaluation of a more local situation, while meaning tends to be an evaluation of a more global situation. You are happy about this moment, but you have meaning regarding your life.
Now you can do either of these evaluations in a near or a far mode. That is, you can just ask yourself for your intuitions on how you feel about your life, within over-thinking it, or you can reason abstractly and idealistically about what sort of meaning you should have or can justify having. In that later more abstract mode, smart sincere people can be stumped. How can they justify having meaning in a world where there is so much randomness and suffering, and that is so far from being a heaven?
Of course in a sense, heaven is an incoherent concept. We have so many random idealistic constraints on what heaven should be like that it isn’t clear that anything can satisfy them all. For example, we may want to be the hero of a dramatic story, even if we know that characters in such stories wish that they could live in more peaceful worlds.
Idealistic young people have such problems in spades, because they haven’t lived long enough to see how unreasonable are their many idealistic demands. And smarter people can think up even more such demands.
But the basic fact is that most everyone in most every society does in fact find meaning in their lives, even if they don’t know how to justify it. Thus I can be pretty confident that ems also find meaning in their lives.
Here are some more random facts about meaning, drawn from my revised Age of Em, out next April.
Today, individuals who earn higher wages tend to have both more happiness and a stronger sense of purpose, and this sense of purpose seems to cause higher wages. People with a stronger sense of purpose also tend to live longer. Nations that are richer tend to have more happiness but less meaning in life, in part because they have less religion. .. Types of meaning that people get from work today include authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, and transcendence.
Happiness and meaning have different implications for behavior, and are sometimes at odds. That is, activities that raise happiness often lower meaning, and vice versa. For example, people with meaning think more about the future, while happy people focus on the here and now. People with meaning tend to be givers who help others, while happy people tend to be takers who are helped by others. Being a parent and spending time with loved ones gives meaning, but spending time with friends makes one happy.
Affirming one’s identity and expressing oneself increase meaning but not happiness. People with more struggles, problems, and stresses have more meaning, but are less happy. Happiness but not meaning predicts a satisfaction of desires, such as for health and money, and more frequent good relative to bad feelings. Older people gain meaning by giving advice to younger people. We gain more meaning when we follow our gut feelings rather than thinking abstractly about our situations.
My weak guess is that productivity tends to predict meaning more strongly than happiness. If this is correct, it suggests that, all else equal, ems will tend to think more about the future, more be givers who help others, spend more time with loved ones and less with friends, more affirm their identity and express themselves, give more advice, and follow gut feelings more. But they will also have more struggles and less often have their desires satisfied.